Yemen My Life: A Peace Corp Volunteer’s Memoir
This weekend was the thirty-five year reunion of Peace Corps volunteers, Irish Concern, and other international organizations who served in Yemen together. We were innocent ambassadors to the ways of the country and Islam. The baptism of my youth was in the glorious, incomprehensible, but always welcoming, land of Yemen.
In the thirty-five years since, the world itself has changed dramatically. It’s not safer, ecological, or saner; in fact, it is the opposite. Then it was possible to walk or drive from Europe, through Afghanistan, to Asia. Sex was without the fear of AIDS. China was in the painful paroxysm of the Cultural Revolution, and the USSR was the sclerotic stalwart of the Marxist-Lenin-Stalin ideology (with far more Lenin and Stalin – I wish they’d had a bit of John Lennon, but that was a different revolution.) It was impossible to imagine the Berlin Wall falling or the Iron Curtain rusting. As we now have the media and government-fueled fear of Islam, at that time we had the fear of the big, bad “communists,” though the Marxism had been thoroughly bleached out, and the Stalinism and Maoism firmly pressed into every seam. We were still wondering if the Beatles would get back together and if Paul was really dead. Nevertheless, it wasn’t safer or any saner; the insanity was different, with the Red Brigade and the Red Army factions in bell-bottom trousers spreading mayhem across Europe, and the PLO and Israeli Mossad (the un-secret service) engaged in their own unique terrorist activities. There were oil shortages and the emergence of the oil cartels, the non-aligned movement – colonial states taking their first steps to independence. And then there was Yemen at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula situated at the Bab Al Mendeb, the Gates of tears, the narrow entrance to the Red Sea.
Yemen, the blessed Arabia, was hidden like a secret jewel, yet from the earliest recorded time, was always part of history in its own unique way: The Queen of Sheba lived in Western Yemen in her Queendom called the Marrib, and her visits to King Solomon are noted in the bible. Yemenis were the earliest converts to Islam and the vanguard of the Islamic armies in the seventh century. was the source of the frankincense trade to Petra and Rome, and the silver jewelry produced by the Jewish craftsmen was the most highly prized in the ancient world. Stories abounded of this verdant enchanted land with its legendary hospitality and fierce looking men, and when we arrived in the l970’s, the men still carried curved daggers called Jambias and Kalashnikov rifles in the city streets. Nevertheless, like most Westerners, we were clueless to this culture and its history, and entered armed with our Western expectations: No toilets? No running water in most houses? Women in veils? Islam – few of us understood even the basics of what it was. Was it a bearded guy by the name of Mohammed from the Middle Ages? A God called Allah and several billion people who called themselves Muslims? Lawrence of Arabia the King of the Arabs? This fog of ignorance was the foundation of our entry into the Blessed Arabia.
The glorious part of our adventure was that we were so ignorant and such tabula rasa, though many of us had very useful technical skills, i.e., we were engineers, registered nurses, doctors, teachers, and such, but this technical prowess did not allow us a carte blanch entrée into this labyrinth culture that was a riddle inside of a conundrum. The entrée had to be earned through trust, failure, disappointment, and surrendering all expectations.
Yemen was always about context and relationship, but we did not really understand relationship; we understood the Western sense of affability, cordiality, and family, but we didn’t have the bone-rooted awareness of tribe and kin. Tribe and kin in the desert mentality is survival. Outside of tribe is exile. We came with our Western sense of impermanence and instant relationship, the randiness of the libertine l960’s, a healthy appetite for beer and pot, and naïveté firmly rooted in the lacuna of our experiences with life. Those who were most successful surrendered their expectations. Ironically, the night before leaving for Yemen I opened a fortune cookie that said, “Be prepared for anything and expect nothing.” I kept that message very close at hand and near to my heart. The Fates were laughing and warning me..
Despite the cross cultural training we received, I still kept my Western sensibilities of what should be done, how work should be conducted, when to show up for meetings, and the social conventions of modernity, i.e., like when a meeting is scheduled for 12:00 noon, you arrive fifteen minutes beforehand and the length of the meeting is as established. What a foolish concept in Yemen! Life exists on Yemen time kept on a Salvador Dali kind of watch. You arrive more or less when the meeting is to start, you have some tea, you chat with the people in the office, and if the meeting starts within an hour – marvelous! Everything happens through the will of Allah: whether or not you show up for a meeting, when it starts, when it doesn’t, whether or not a person is ill, whether or not someone dies, and every facet of life is through Inshallah – the will of God. A fatalism perhaps born of necessity, and impervious to our Western desires for order and modernity. In Yemen, though occupied on the shores by the Ottomans, unsullied by European colonialism and barely influenced by the intellectual richness of the Islamic renaissance, a blind fatalism was a logical outcome, and it fueled the social and intellectual inertia that bound this country to an archaic past. Even the notion of the world as being round was still seen as preposterous, strange in a country with high mountains that afforded the vista of sunrise and sunset on an arch across the globe. Though the Islamic courts of Yemen clung to a languorous tribalism that was impervious to the advances of science, medicine, philosophy, and art. Perhaps this was the seed of the great “sleep of Islam” from the l500’s to the modern era. The archaic past was the sublime womb of comfort, knowing without questioning, and belief without query. Relationships between men and women were strictly proscribed; when to work and when not to, along with every facet of life, seemed to be part of a continuity of time that stretched back for eons. This layering of society, social relationships, language, and culture were the veiled curtains we innocents tried to slip past.
In the mid-l970s we were had the dubious blessing to live without the technology of today. A phone call to the US or Europe was an arduous process that might take a few hours at the local telecommunications office, and a telephone call within country was often erratic. However, since modern communication was often difficult , when you wanted to visit or talk to someone, you went to their house. When you were there, you weren’t interrupted by your host taking a phone call, text messaging, playing on the computer, watching television, or the hundreds of other distractions to which we now are heir. The downside was that Yemeni children studied under the few street lamps at night, because they had no electricity at home, and the electricity in Hodeidah was unreliable because it was on D.C. current, which fluctuated with the rise and fall of the motors. Despite temperatures that soared up to 120°F (48°C) during the day, with upwards of 95% humidity in the peak summer, air conditioning and fans were impossible, as they always broke down thanks to the erratic electric current. On the hottest nights I soaked a wet sheet, rung it out, and lay underneath it. For an hour or so, the illusion of coolness was refreshing while the voracious mosquitoes dive-bombed and swarmed around the netting hung precisely to keep them at bay. Occasionally, a few managed to sneak in, and my fragile sleep shattered with the roar of the kamikaze pests. Yemeni mosquitoes have an appetite for blood that vampires would envy. One night, quite drunk on some bathtub gin and sure I would get a sound night’s sleep, two bats sneaked into my bedroom that overlooked the Red Sea. Like Captain Ahab on the forecastle, I stood up on my bed made of old packing crates, armed with a broom in a dark room illuminated with a sliver of moonlight, drunk, and determined to swat the bats to their next life. Yes, try to picture it: I am naked, drunk, half asleep, ensnared in the mosquito netting, swatting at bats who have a sonar system that the navy would envy, roaring like Captain Ahab, and shouting out epithets of biblical proportions. Finally, there is silence. I am sure all of this Sturm und Drang frightened the hell out of the bats and mosquitoes, or perhaps they laughed themselves to death at the sight of me! I staggered over to my window alcove where I often wrote, doused myself with some toxic insect repellant (banned in every country around the world except Yemen), and rolled a cigarette with adrenalin-fueled fingers. In the numb peace of a drunken stupor, I inhaled slowly, observing the comforting glow of the cigarette in the dark. The moon was full over the Red Sea some twenty-five meters from my window, the waters filled with phosphorous, a sea of diamond light exploding on the waters edge, and every whisper of the wind-rippled brilliance. In Sanskrit, the word diamond originally meant, “to hold light” and this was never truer than that night, as the light-filled waves lulled me to sleep. At the crack of morning, the hoard of pigeons that roosted in the room next to my bedroom woke me up at about the same time as the first prayer call arose from the mosque.
This weekend Peace Corps, Irish Concern, and others gathered to celebrate our youth in Yemen at the Yemen Ambassador’s resident. As expected, the hospitality was splendid, as we graciously welcomed by the diplomatic corps, almost all of them were the same age we were when we were in Yemen. Though grayer and perhaps wiser, we all retained our enchantment with Yemen, the stories were animated, the tales taller, and the many illnesses we suffered malaria, hepatitis, bilharzias, chronic GI distress all faded in the background. In that Brigadoon evening our animated faces grew younger, the grey hair faded, the long hair and beards of the young men returned, the women as svelte and lovely as they were as young women. We were transported back to the chrysalis of our youth as innocent ambassadors to Yemen. The baptism of our youth was in the glorious, incomprehensible, but always welcoming, land of Yemen.